Bill Clinton's Reagan Legacy

As part of an extended attempt to disingenuously link Barack Obama to Ronald Reagan and the conservative movement, veterans of the Clinton Administration held a conference call to proclaim the 1990s the era of bold new ideas.

"One would think we would all agree that it's the Democrats and not the Republicans who are the party of ideas in the last 10 or 15 years," Clinton strategist Mark Penn said. The only problem with this claim is that many of Clinton's most trumpeted "ideas" were actually Republican ones. His strategy of triangulation, coined by Penn and Dick Morris, at its core adopted ideas from the other side of the aisle, putting a soft Democratic face on harsh Republican policies. These supposedly big ideas, like NAFTA, welfare reform and a balanced budget, would've fit in just fine in a Reagan Administration. When Clinton declared in 1996 that "the era of big government is over," one could imagine the words coming out of Reagan's mouth.

My colleague William Greider captured Clinton's legacy in an indispensable Nation magazine article from 2000, "Unfinished Business: Clinton's Lost Presidency."

Clinton, as President, consigned the malfunctioning global economy to the reform energies of the Business Roundtable and Wall Street. His Administration led cheers for multinational commerce, opened fragile economies to the manic surges of global capital and created the World Trade Organization to judge whether new social standards are, in fact, barriers to trade and therefore forbidden.

When Bill Clinton recites the big challenges, he reminds us of all he danced away from as President. The spirited reformer is the young man we met back in 1992, brimming with big ideas, but he is utterly unconvincing now. One feels sadness for the lost promise of this extraordinarily skillful politician. One also suspects that Clinton is trying to revise the public memory of his presidency, polishing his reformer image so that when future Presidents actually do take up these big ideas and confront the challenges, he will be able to claim parentage.

That's exactly what's happening now. The Clintons are slamming Obama for admiring Reagan's political skills when it was Clinton who distanced himself from the progressive traditions of the Democratic Party and built a bridge to Reagan's legacy.

Helpfully EJ Dionne reminds us that back in 1991, Clinton praised Reagan. More recently, Hillary Clinton told Tom Brokaw that Reagan "played the balance and the music beautifully." As Dionne writes, "with both Clintons on record saying nice things about Reagan, why go after Obama on this point?"

The Clintons will certainly take umbrage at the Reagan comparison on matters of economic policy, pointing to his long-standing battles with the GOP. Greider suggest George Herbert Walker Bush may be a better fit.

Clinton did essentially govern like a moderate Republican. His accomplishments, when the sentimental gestures are set aside, are indistinguishable from George Bush's. Like Bush, Clinton increased the top income tax rate a bit, raised the minimum wage modestly and expanded tax credits for the working poor. He reduced military spending somewhat but, like Bush, failed to restructure the military for post-cold war realities. He got tough on crime, especially drug offenders, and built many more prisons. He championed educational reform. He completed the North American Free Trade Agreement, which was mainly negotiated by the Bush Administration. On these and other matters, one can fairly say that Clinton completed Bush's agenda.

In her bid for the White House, Hillary Clinton is singing a different tune, railing against corporate America and allying with the downtrodden, promising to fight for working people and the middle-class. But remember, Bill Clinton did the same thing in 1992. It's reasonable to ask which Hillary will be in the White House, when Bill is in the East Wing and the Clintonites of old come back.

Cross-posted at The Nation